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The New Gilded Age

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The historian Richard White, author of one of the delightfully angriest books of history in recent years, demonstrates some of the ways we have created a New Gilded Age, in particular around the issue of political corruption:

Gilded Age politics was always corrupt. Before the 1890s, however, it was retail corruption. Corporations solicited “friends” among those already in office — the preferred means were favors and the sharing of financial information. When necessary — and it often was — they offered bribes.

Influencing elections was far more difficult. Before the direct election of senators, the politics of friendship and bribery worked only in persuading legislatures to choose U.S. senators who would serve corporate interests. Senator John Mitchell of Oregon, for example, proclaimed of Ben Holladay, the railroad tycoon, “Ben Holladay’s politics are my politics and what Ben Holladay wants I want.”
Most corporate friends tried to be more circumspect. But when — through the pairing of vanity and bad judgment – plutocrats like Leland Stanford of the Southern Pacific Railroad and William A. Clark, a notorious “copper king” of Montana, bought their own election as senators, the confusion of interests was harder to disguise.

The move to “educational” campaigns and the growing strength of national parties, which were far more than coalitions of state and local organizations, created new demands for money.

The money was chump change by today’s standards, but it was enough to require large donors. It represented a new form of corruption — quid pro quo. But it substituted favors to a political party for favors to a specific politician.

Henry Adams, the grandson and great-grandson of presidents and author of the early 20th-century’s best-selling and most erudite memoir, was cynical and disengaged about politics – though well informed. He recognized the new relationship of the Gilded Age rich and politicians.

After the 1892 defeat of the Republican Benjamin Harrison by Grover Cleveland, Adams wondered why GOP money hadn’t been able to win out. He asked his friend John Hay, a well-connected Republican who had served as Abraham Lincoln’s private secretary and would later be Theodore Roosevelt’s secretary of state, what had happened to “McKinley money” — the money that Republican manufacturers reaped from the McKinley Tariff.

“Is it possible,” Adams wrote, “…that our Republican manufacturers, after pocketing the swag, refused to disgorge? If so, they’ll catch it.”

The spoils that Adams referred to were not to supply simple bribes. Instead, he was saying, the plutocrats should have used their wealth to fund Harrison’s presidential campaign. It would, in the language of Justice Anthony Kennedy, who wrote for the majority in Citizens United, be laundered into speech.

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